One Cheerful Yuletide Tradition You Need to Be Very Careful Of
The Tradition of the Johnson Yule Log
Daddy was a self-proclaimed “River Rat.” Having grown-up on the banks of the Ohio, he fished, swam, and played in it his entire life. One of his favorite pastimes, well through his seventies, was walking along the banks, picking up driftwood, and finding firewood that he would haul home in the trunk of his car. He was proud of collecting “free” fuel and would gleefully throw it in the fireplace through the cold winter months.
Each year, Daddy would make it his goal to find the biggest, driest, hardest piece of wood he could find on the riverbanks to use on Christmas Eve. It was a Johnson tradition that once the Yule log was put on the fire, it had to burn throughout the night and still be glowing Christmas morning when the second-to-largest log would be thrown on.
“The Stockings Were Hung By the Chimney With Care…”
The Christmas of 1970, when I was twelve, Mother had been cooking all day for company. My grandparents, Maw-Maw, and Nanny and Baw-Baw were coming for Christmas Eve dinner. Mother had moved the maple, drop-leaf table out into the living room so we’d have room for more people than could fit in the cramped alcove in the kitchen. She had set the table with her gold-edged, ivory china with blue wheat stalks swaying in the middle of each plate. Her traditional roast and browned potatoes, (always cooked dry and nearly lifeless,) sat in the oven, while her fancy cranberry Jell-O mold congealed in the freezer. The “stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” the tree lights sparkling, and we were ready to celebrate Christmas Eve.
Daddy decided it was time to put his traditional Yule log on the fire — one he was particularly proud of this year because of its immense size. It was all he could do to lift it, staggering up the one step of the garage where the firewood was kept and heaving it in, huffing ragged breaths.
A Bullfighter, A Fireman, and Three “De-Smokers”
It wasn’t more than a minute before giant clouds of dense gray smoke were rolling out of the tiny family room and into the kitchen, billowing down the narrow hallway, into the living room and every inch of that brick home on Driftwood Drive. Mother frantically threw open the doors and started flapping her dishtowel like a manic, but inept, bullfighter.
Daddy was shouting, “The flue is jammed! The flue is jammed!” Lesser men would have been shouting profanities and throwing cuss words, but in all my life, I never heard Daddy curse. Not once. Even though smoke was flowing fast and furious, Daddy somehow got that hot log out of the fireplace by himself and unstuck the fireplace damper. The log went back in, and the rest of us rushed around waving rags, opening windows, spraying air freshener, and trying to “de-smoke” the house as all three of my grandparents arrived and were walking up the sidewalk.
It’s a miracle that Daddy didn’t blister his hands and that he was able to fix the problem without the house burning to ashes around us. Not everything was unscathed, though. All those Christmas stockings hung with such care were scorched black on their backsides. Some actually seeped chocolate from treats that had melted inside them. The house smelled like a campfire for weeks.
With his typical good humor and his joy at being a punster, Daddy joked for years about the “smoked” turkey we might have had, the “hot” chocolate served in stockings, and the infamous “Yule Be Sorry” Christmas Log.
Excerpted from Melissa Gouty’s book, The Magic of Ordinary, to be released on January 15, 2021. The personal story of growing up with a loving father; the universal story of the power of a loving father to change the world.